All Blacks facing moment of truth as great expectations weigh heavily

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The Guardian

Dip your toe in the thermal pool of angst swirling around the All Blacks and you are liable to be burnt. Criticism has reached boiling point. The thermostat is ready to explode. Anything other than a series-clinching victory against Ireland’s history-makers in Wellington this weekend will spark a full-scale national inquiry.

No matter who they face or where they play New Zealand as a rugby nation demands the All Blacks win every time they step onto the field.

Such unrealistic expectations are largely borne out of the period from 2012 to September 2019 when the All Blacks suffered nine losses in 100 Tests – a period that includes New Zealand’s first World Cup triumph on foreign soil and the global rugby record for 18 consecutive wins. Generational players, the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu contributed to a golden age that delivered a near 89% win record.

Steve Hansen’s tenure as head coach concluded, however, with the crushing 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat by England, followed by the passing of the baton to his assistant Ian Foster. Foster’s appointment sowed the seeds of frustration for many agitated All Blacks fans demanding change.

A large pocket of New Zealand rugby followers, particularly those that maintain six-time Super Rugby-winning Crusaders coach Scott Robertson should have been preferred for the national job, have waited for Foster to fall. His struggles to deliver consistency during a Covid-disrupted period have fuelled that backdrop of discontent.

The All Blacks have claimed one victory from their last four Tests and have four wins from their past eight – two of those against Italy and the USA. Last week in Dunedin they became the first All Blacks team to lose at home to Ireland – a stigma loose forward Ardie Savea admitted deeply stung those involved.

Foster’s 16 wins from 23 attempts – a 69.57% win record, the second worst in the professional era for the All Blacks –_forms another lightning rod for the pro-Robertson brigade. As is the team sliding to fourth in the world for the first time since rankings were introduced in 2003.

Ian Foster has come under intense pressure following New Zealand’s slip to fourth in the world rankings. Photograph: Photosport/INPHO/Shutterstock

The erosion of long-held records corrodes the fear factor the All Blacks once yielded. Perspective is often lost amid the emotive fallout from any All Blacks defeat.

Two weeks ago, following the seemingly comfortable first Test victory at Eden Park, the All Blacks appeared to answer many lingering questions only for the chaos of cards in Dunedin, where Foster’s men were reduced to 14 players for 45 minutes, to immediately revive the storm.

Victory on Saturday will go a long way to quelling an increasingly anxious rugby nation. Lose and the New Zealand Rugby board will be forced to question whether Foster is the right man to guide the All Blacks through to next year’s World Cup in France.

Despite mounting pressure Foster projected a calm and resilient image after making four changes – veteran lock Sam Whitelock returning from concussion, Nepo Laulala at tighthead prop to stabilise the scrum and Crusaders duo David Havili and Will Jordan promoted to balance the backline – to his starting team.

“Individually you go through the same emotions as the team,” Foster said. “When we don’t win there’s a lot of internal reflection in what we’re doing then you get into gear and start nailing the next week. That’s where I’m at. I can’t wait to play Ireland in Wellington.

“Everyone else is learning this is a high-quality team we’re playing against. This is a great examination for us. We’ve got to show we’re smart and learning as well.

“It’s a series decider. We love these occasions and there’s an edge about it. It’s an early litmus test of how we’ve grown over the last few weeks.”

The All Blacks last lost successive tests on home soil 24 years ago. Andy Farrell’s Irish are in a buoyant mood, however. Four days after securing their maiden win on New Zealand soil Ireland’s midweek team defeated the Māori All Blacks for the first time. And, thus, the scene is set for the most anticipated test in New Zealand since the 2017 British and Irish Lions decider finished with a controversial draw.

July 15, 2022 at 05:53PM Liam Napier in Wellington

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